Once again, here is the dreaded moment of choosing the best records of the year, and it has definitely been a tough one. If this year has proved something, it’s that the traditional styles and tropes still have a lot to offer. Through our MetalMatters column, we have featured a plethora of black and death metal records that are definitely worth your while. And a few of these have made it to the final cut as well.
However, it always feels that the spotlight needs to be on the ones that push the genres forward. Now, this can be done extravagantly or more subtly. Technical death metal structures contorted beyond recognition, post-hardcore and noise rock melting with a pop directness, or heavy music that cannot be pigeonholed. We are lucky to have received such an excellent bunch of records under what has been an incredibly stressful year. So, dig into this selection, we are confident you will find all these works worth your while. – Spyros Stasis
20. Seputus – Phantom Indigo (Willowtip)
Featuring three of the four members of technical death metal overlords Pyrrhon, it’s no surprise that elements of Pyrrhon live in Seputus. “The Forgetting Curve” shines with the pneuma of the recent Abscess Time, while “The Learned Approach” proposes the same Pyrrhonic relentless onslaught. But, even in these moments, a certain textural quality separates Seputus, stemming from a blackened interpretation evident in their debut record Man Does Not Give. With Phantom Indigo. Cutthroat vocals compliment the guttural screams, while the eerie touch of the lead work seamlessly combines technical prowess with a sickening atmosphere, reaching for an almost psychedelic attribute.
Still, the full majesty of Seputus is unveiled through their long-form investigations. They roam through avant-garde death groove-isms under a blackened guise in “Tautology”. Then there’s the complete deconstructionist that is “Deuterologist” and the havoc of the title track. Seputus have essentially uncovered an extraordinary combination of black and death metal, pushed and pulled by their experimental mindset in such a way as to create a unique amalgamation. And Phantom Indigo is just the first offering to this adventurous journey. – Spyros Stasis
19. Threshing Spirit – The Crucible (American Decline/American Dreams)
Although the usage of black metal elements outside the genre itself has become a common touch in contemporary music, the aesthetic character of these tropes is so distinct that it can hijack one’s impression of a work. In the case of the multifaceted musician, music writer, and American Dreams label head Jordan Reyes’s full-length debut as Threshing Spirit, reducing the album to “black metal” means doing it a great disservice. There are many more design intricacies at work here below that obvious surface, with black metal affectations just a consequence of choices made much earlier in the process.
The Crucible channels a profoundly internalized, vividly existential but always compassionate understanding of nature, the universe, and our place in it. At times, it breathes in the world around it, leaving behind shards of ambient country and halcyon guitar phrases akin to Reyes’s Sand Like Stardust album. At others, it sighs wistfully and opens up outwards, expressing a cosmic sense of wonder using bouts of black metal that have been sliced open by synths and tingly guitar phrases. The genre’s usual malevolence and aggression are missing in these segments, supplanted instead by a sense of empathy and gorgeous melody. Together, they build towards a beautiful paradox of styles and atmospheres that, much like the whole album, yields a unique experience. – Antonio Poscic
18. Vouna – Atropos (Profound Lore)
Atropos is an immersive experience, transferring the listener to Gianna Bekris’ magical realm, as the ceremonial start of “Highest Mountain” travels through dark forests and rocky landscapes. It is a dreamlike scenery, taking place amid nature, clouds forming in the sky, rains falling over mountain peaks. The epic essence is taken to another level with Bekris’ stellar vocal delivery, cutting through the heavy riffs and shining in the hidden center of the ambiance. It carries so much emotion, the beautifully mournful approach in “Vanish” or in the minimally set “What Once Was (Reprise)”. Still, there are more realms to travel for Bekris, and that is where Atropos is at its darkest.
The doom-laden setting of “Highest Mountain” fades, and the descent into the underworld begins, as slow drums echo through the distance before the synth-driven quality of “Vanish” comes into view. The funereal sense is just the start, the minimalism at times hitting a dungeon synth or kosmische Musik level. Still, nothing feels forced; the long-form narratives naturally progress through these different modes. Offering moments of grand majesty with Subrosa influenced weight and an Evoken informed progression, traveling to the edges of minimalism and then offering a brutal black metal interpretation. Atropos, in essence, fulfills all the promises that Vouna’s debut made. – Spyros Stasis
17. Mehenet – Ng’ambu (Gilead Media)
While I’m no stranger to hyperbole and overly effusive proclamations of excellence, I’m quite serious when I say that with Ng’ambu, Mehenet forged one of the most exceptional black metal albums of the year. What separated the New Orleans five-piece’s sophomore release from other equally accomplished 2021 black metal albums (and we’ve had quite a few this year) is the presence of deeply rooted New Orleanian influences and its corresponding sense of mystique.
Their music is permeated with the Afro-Brazilian diasporic belief system Quimbanda, which surfaces in samples and snippets of rituals. That also informs how their fiery black metal flows in and out of melodies, blasting sections, and esoterically tinged sound samples. Unlike many other black metal bands that use Satanism as a prop, there is a sense of earnest spiritism on Ng’ambu that guides the band members on their journey. Meanwhile, ghosts of Quimbanda haunt and exalt every dark folk growl, collapsing riff, and pummeling drum blast. “Quimbanda is the fire by which we forge our iron and the strangling plants that cure disease. Quimbanda is both the pox and the inoculation.” Best consumed in one take without intermissions, Ng’ambu is half an hour of intense musical perfection. – Antonio Poscic
16. Pupil Slicer – Mirrors (Prosthetic)
With their debut record, Mirrors, Pupil Slicer reveal their impeccable grasp on the duality between grindcore passion and mathcore complexity. Relying strongly on emotion and stemming from a punk lineage, the London trio unleash genuine havoc. “Vilified” sees this extravagant energy, drawn from decades of grindcore material, sprinkled on top with a touch of death metal brutality. Much of the breakdowns and groove found in Mirrors is drawn from the technical death metal side, be it through the heavy kick-off in “Worthless” or the grainy, sludgy beatdown of “Wounds Upon My Skin”.
Still, in the intersections, it’s the dissonance and careful placement of math rock leads, verging at times towards noise rock ideas, that really elevates this work. The frantic rhythms of “Panic Defence” and the mind-melting cacophony of “Stabbing Spiders” speak volumes to this affinity, while the unexpected clean interludes completely flip the script. Taking it a step further, Pupil Slicer even move towards a hopeful melodic domain, with closer “Collective Unconscious” arriving with some brilliant hooks to finish off this exquisite work. What is stunning is that despite the raw essence of Mirrors, Pupil Slicer can project their vision with pristine clarity. Very impressive for a band that has just released their debut record. – Spyros Stasis